Since its Broadway premiere in 1964, “Fiddler on the Roof” has ranked among the most beloved and most performed musicals. Fueled by a bevy of indelible songs — music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick — it tells a moving, eventful story of the daughter-laden milkman Tevye and his fellow Jewish villagers, ever under threat of a Russian pogrom.
As a national touring production of the recent, much-acclaimed Broadway revival directed by Bartlett Sher came to Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre, it’s an apt time to catch up with Harnick, who, at 94, is as busy and creative as ever — he and his wife just collaborated on “Koi: A Modern Folktale,” a book of poems written in haiku by Harnick and vivid photographs of koi by Margery Harnick.
Here are excerpts from a phone conversation with Harnick:
Q. There have been innumerable stagings of “Fiddler on the Roof” throughout the world. Are you ever disappointed in the ones you have seen?
A. Every production is a little different, and every [actor portraying] Tevye is different from every other Tevye. In this country, I have never seen a bad production. But my wife and I saw one in Denmark — performed in Danish — and it was terrible. We found out afterward that there were two directors at the company and both wanted to direct it. When one of them went on vacation, the other took over. That was awful.
Q. Have you ever been interested in re-writing any of your lyrics for “Fiddler,” or in working on a sequel?
A. I’ve rewritten lyrics with other shows, but not this one. I think that’s because [director] Jerome Robbins forced [Bock and me] to think very carefully about everything when we were getting this show ready. So by the time it opened, there was no need to change anything.
Sequels are not for me. I have seen descriptions of other musical sequels, but I have no desire to see them.
Q. You have written librettos for new operas, including “Lady Bird: First Lady of the Land” with composer Henry Mollicone, a couple of years ago. And you’ve prepared translations of some classic librettos. You started your career writing music as well as texts. Any desire to compose an opera?
A. I’ve thought about writing one, but I really don’t have the musical technique. It’s hard enough to write a libretto. I do have an idea for another libretto, based on a French play by [Edouard] Pailleron, a [19th-century] playwright I never heard of. My translation of the title is “A World Where Boredom Reigns.” When I first read it, I thought, oh my God, this could be an operetta along the lines of [Franz Lehar’s] “The Merry Widow.”
Q. Over the five decades since “Fiddler on the Roof” premiered, the musical has never gone out of favor. Of course, the terrific songs and lyrics have a lot to do with that, but what else do you think accounts for the longevity?
A. Some stories are evergreen. The original story by Sholem Aleichem that was the basis [for the show] is wonderful to begin with.
Q. The issues of prejudice, violence and hate that are a crucial part of that story had obvious relevance to 1964 when “Fiddler” was new. How does the world look to you 54 years later?
A. I don’t think many things have changed. The problems we face seem to be permanent. As a citizen, it gets very frustrating to see what’s going on. I wonder when people are going to wake up and behave themselves.